The Magazine

How to Export an Awakening

Afghanistan, viewed from Iraq.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS and JOSHUA D. GOODMAN
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The United States needs a new military strategy in Afghanistan. In 2008, NATO casualties rose to an all-time annual high of 294, 155 of them U.S. soldiers. Roadside bombs and kidnappings doubled last year. Underscoring the gravity of the situation, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned the House Armed Services Committee in September, "I'm not convinced we're winning in Afghanistan."

In October, General David Petraeus--best known for revamping American strategy in Iraq--inherited responsibility for Afghanistan when he assumed command of CENTCOM (whose purview stretches from Egypt and the Horn of Africa all the way through Central Asia). None knows better than he that U.S. progress in Iraq over the past two years owes much to the rise of the "Awakening" movement, an alliance of Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi nationalists, ex-Baathists, and others united by the goal of driving al Qaeda from their country. Petraeus oversaw U.S. forces' work in partnering with, protecting, and spreading the Iraqi Awakening. Now he has presented a plan to U.S. allies to spur a similar movement among Afghans.

Despite some objections (notably from Canadian defense minister Peter MacKay), the United States will almost certainly try to replicate the Iraqi Awakening's achievements in Afghanistan in the coming year. How? In considering this question, there is no better place to start than a 47-page memorandum written by Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha, the leader of Iraq's Awakening movement, and submitted to the American embassy in Kabul last spring.

Abu Risha prepared his memo at the request of Christopher Dell, the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Afghanistan. Though it is not publicly available (we obtained a copy from U.S. military sources) and has received little media attention beyond an account by Eli Lake in the now-defunct New York Sun, the plan it outlines is likely to take on greater importance over the coming year. The memo provides a cogent analysis of the situation in Afghanistan, as well as pertinent suggestions for replicating the Awakening's success there.

Abu Risha reviews several challenges in Afghanistan. The country is beset by warlords and their followers, who "are accustomed to living freely without the rule of law." There is great distrust of Hamid Karzai's government, which some Afghans believe is conspiring with the United States in "Americanizing and changing the identity of the Afghan people." This distrust is magnified by the country's living conditions: The economy is poor, with wages low and unemployment high. Despite improvements, the government has been unable to provide adequate education and health care.

These internal factors are compounded, in Abu Risha's view, by a military picture unfavorable to the United States. He argues that "military attacks by air against Taliban locations will cause the loss of many civilian lives," and so are likely to generate hostility to U.S. and NATO forces.

Abu Risha argues, nevertheless, that there are parallels between Afghanistan today and Iraq's Anbar Province in 2006 and 2007. Most important, al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Afghanistan have created a "climate of terror" similar to what they created in Anbar, where "they murdered anyone who opposed or criticized their actions and behavior." As in Anbar, he believes, an Awakening could help Afghanistan reverse its present deadly course.

Abu Risha outlines some preconditions for success. First and foremost is the need for a strong leader. In Anbar, this was the late Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, Abu Risha's brother, assassinated in late 2007. Such a figure must have "charisma, outstanding leadership elements and courage," he should be "a man of honor, tolerant and persistent," and he should be "a center of trust" with "a political family background." Abu Risha emphasizes, however, that NATO should not try to establish new leadership in Afghanistan, but should work within the tribes' existing hierarchies. "This is a nation," he writes, "that does not accept changes or give up control easily without a fight."

Sterling Jensen, who participated as an Army contract linguist in the U.S. government's engagement with the Iraqi tribes as the Anbar Awakening was taking shape in the fall of 2006, agrees that Abdul Sattar's leadership was critical. "The Americans didn't make the Awakening," Jensen says. "They didn't make Sheikh Ahmed or Sheikh Abdul Sattar. You can influence some [local leaders'] thinking, but it's going to be the Americans recognizing these kinds of leaders, and supporting them."